December 18 – On Donner

Today’s factismal: The word “reindeer” means “deer deer”.

It is beginning to look a lot like Xmas and one of the most important parts of that look is the number of reindeer that are sprouting up. You can see them as lawn ornaments, on Christmas cards, and standing patiently by Santa’s sleigh. But what you can’t see is that their popularity is relatively recent. While Santa Claus has been a part of Christmas since the 1400’s, the reindeer only date to Clement Moore’s famous poem in 1823.

A reindeer standing next to somebody's sleigh (My camera)

A reindeer standing next to somebody’s sleigh
(My camera)

Though they may be relatively new to the Christmas biz, reindeer have a much longer history than that. They were well-known to such ancient scientists as Aristotle (who called them “tarandos” or “draggers” for their habit of dragging their feet in the snow to look for food) and were domesticated for milk and meat by people in the snowier parts of Europe as far back as 3,000 BC; even today, reindeer meatballs are a popular food in much of Scandinavia. And that ancient relationship with people helps explain why they are known by so many names. In Canada and parts of Alaska, they are called caribou (“snow shoveler”) while in other parts of Alaska they are called tuktu. In Scandinavia, they are called reindeer (“deer deer”). And in the Russian steppes, they are called pücö (“cattle”).

"You want to call me what?" (My camera)

“You want to call me what?”
(My camera)

No matter what you call them, reindeer are magnificent animals. They are typically about seven feet long and weigh upwards of 350 pounds, with the males being slightly bigger than the females. Unfortunately for armchair biologists, both the males and the females grow antlers every year (unusual for deer) which makes telling the sex of a reindeer difficult to anyone who isn’t a reindeer. And, in a fascinating example of adaptation, the reindeer’s feet change depending on the season. During the summer when the tundra turns marshy, the pad on their feet expands to give them more stable traction. But during the winter, the pad retracts so that the horny hooves are exposed for gripping the ice and snow. Another of their cold-weather adaptations is that they can see into the ultraviolet which allows them to spy the scat of other reindeer and the fur of predators that would blend into the snow otherwise. And though they live in vast herds of animals, it is rare that you will see a reindeer in the wild. Much like any other wild or even domesticated animal, they spend much of their time in places that a human wouldn’t enjoy (e.g., in a blizzard looking for food).

So what should you do if you do see a reindeer (or any other wild animal)? First, think about how lucky you are; most people wouldn’t have the  chance to see something that big in the wild. Next, use your phone or camera to take a picture of it so that you will always remember the moment. And finally, report what you saw on Wildlife Sightings. This web site was set up specifically to allow citizen scientists like you to report the animals that they see; the data that you collect is then used by scientists around the world to measure biodiversity (which tells us how healthy an area is) and to discover new species and track old ones. To participate, head on over to:

December 17 – Pointers and settias

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:

December 16 – One Woman’s Mead

Today’s factismal: Margaret Mead’s doctoral dissertation was the best selling anthropology book for 40 years.

Back on December 16, 1901, Margaret Mead joined the population of Philadelphia in the usual way. As is common among children, she was bright, curious, and always trying to learn. But how her parents dealt with her natural traits was unusual: they encouraged her. They made certain that she was given every opportunity to learn and to explore. She was sent to college with the understanding that she’d earn a degree, and she did. First a bachelor’s in psychology from Barnard in 1923. Then a Master’s degree in anthropology followed just a year later. And then, most unusually for a woman of the time, she went on to get her PhD in Anthropology in 1929. But perhaps the most unusual thing about Mead and her education was how she became a doctor: she went into the field to study how other people lived.

And not just any “other people”; she went to one of the most remote and isolated regions of the world, a place known as Samoa. This group of islands is located in the middle of the Pacific ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. The islanders arrived there about 3,000 years ago in outrigger canoes. Thanks to their isolation, the islanders developed many rituals and customs that are unique to the island (though some, like tattooing, have since been adopted by other regions). And they managed to maintain many of those customs even after being “discovered” by the Europeans in 1722. So Mead decided to go to the Samoan islands to learn how these isolated people lived – and to see if the decidedly non-isolated Americans could learn anything from them.

What Mead discovered was that the Samoans had a social structure very different from the ones practiced in America. Where American adolescents did (and do) go through a period of isolation, anxiety, and general anti-social behavior, those in Samoa appeared to grow into adults gently and easily. And where American boys took the lead in social matters such as dating and marriage, in Samoa it was the young women who held the reins. Most shockingly of all, Samoans didn’t seem to have a “battle of the sexes”; both sides had a negotiated peace that worked surprisingly well.

Given those amazing differences, it is no wonder that Mead’s dissertation soon became a best-selling book in 1928. What is amazing is that it remained the most popular anthropology text for the next 40 years. Part of that was because Mead’s work helped highlight what remains one of the most important questions in anthropology today: How much of what we do is created by our genes (our nature) and how much is created by our society (our nurture)? Before Mead, most anthropologists thought that nature was the dominant force and all societies would be very similar; after Mead, the role of nurture was increasingly recognized.

Of course, anthropology still hasn’t settled that question, nor any of dozens of others. And that’s because anthropology, like any good science, is always testing its ideas and developing new ones. If you’d like to take part in that, then why not join the Open Anthropology Group? You can ask questions, take part in discussions, and even help design new experiments. Who knows – you may become the Margaret Mead of the internet!

December 15 – Clam bake

Today’s factismal: An adult giant clam can get 75% of its food from algae living inside its skin.

One of the staples of Saturday afternoon movies is the deadly giant clam. As our hero swims fearlessly underwater through the coral reef surrounded by colorful fish and fierce pirates, suddenly his foot is caught by a giant clam. He struggles fiercely and is only able to free his foot and head for the surface after stabbing the clam to death with his handy bowie knife. But how realistic is that?

This man-eating clam is waiting for its next victim (My camera)

This man-eating clam is waiting for its next victim
(My camera)

It turns out that there is some truth in that scene, but there’s a lot more fiction. Let’s start with the true part: in coral reefs from the shores of Australia to the Philippines lives a giant bivalve that was once known as the man-eating clam; today, we call it by the less evocative name of giant clam. And the giant clam certainly deserves its name; this enormous bivalve can grow to be more than four feet across and can weigh as much as 700 pounds!

A three-foot long giant clam (My camera)

A three-foot long giant clam
(My camera)

But tales of men being captured and eaten by the clams are far more fiction than fact. The giant clam closes very slowly and would be unlikely to catch any but the least wary swimmer in its grasp. In addition, the larger clams can’t even close completely, allowing swimmers to wriggle free with no trouble. Finally, the giant clam is a filter feeder, with no way to digest any large prey that might accidentally get caught when it closes its shell.

However, that last statement isn’t completely true. The giant clam starts its life as a filter feeder, pumping water across its gills using a siphon and living off of the sediment and other goodies that get trapped inside. But by the time it has settled down for a life as a responsible adult clam (when it is about a tenth of an inch long), the clam has started to play host to a type of algae known as zooxanthellae (“little yellow critters”). These algae live inside the clam’s skin in special sacs surrounded by blood vessels. The giant clam will open up and spread its mantle to let the algae get the sunlight as it feeds them waste products that the algae use as food; the algae in turn will combine those waste products with sunlight to make food for the giant clam. A large giant clam will get as much as 75% of its energy from the algae and only about 25% from the goo it filters out of the water.

The zooxanthellae live in the colorful spots on the giant clam's mantle (My camera)

The zooxanthellae live in the colorful spots on the giant clam’s mantle
(My camera)

These giant clams are an amazing example of symbiosis and form an important part of the reef system where they live. Unfortunately, their reputation (and large closing muscle) have made them a popular target for poachers who can sell them for several thousand dollars each. And that’s why the Reef Environmental Education Foundation would like you to report any giant clams (or any other reef critters) that you’ve seen. If you’ve seen them alive, then they want to hear from you. And if you’ve seen them dead and being sold in the market, then they really want to hear from you. To learn more about their mission to save the giant clam and other reef animals, swim on over to:

December 12 – Merry Techmas!

Today’s factismal: X-mas was used as an abbreviation for Christmas around 1100 AD.

Back in 1021, there wasn’t much to write on (to be fair, there weren’t many people who could write on what there was to write on, but that’s another topic to write on). Papyrus was common in Egypt and many Mediterranean countries, but rare outside of there. Vellum (a prepared animal hide) was used for important works in Europe but was fairly expensive. For most daily commerce, wooden boards and slates were used, along with wax tablets in cooler regions. But in every case, these writing surfaces had one thing in common: space was limited.

As a result, the folks who wrote often used abbreviations. One of the more common ones was the use of Χ (the Greek letter “chi”) as shorthand for the word “Christ”. For example, monks writing an account of the exploits of St. Christian of Clogher would refer to him as “Χn d Clogher”. Similarly, Christian of Oliva would be written as “Χn D Oliva”. And Jesus Christ was frequently noted by the combination of two Greek letters (chi and rho; first used by Emperor Constantine as a symbol for his troops), creating the “labarum” ☧. So ever since early Christianity, Christ’s name was abbreviated and Christmas has been written as Χmas.

Of course, I only know this because those monks passed their knowledge down using the best technology of the day. And they also passed along the knowledge of how to use that technology. Today we are more dependent on technology than ever. And we are fortunate in that we don’t need monks to pass the information along – we need geeks. And that brings us to the citizen science opportunity for today: Free Geek. This is a group of geeks dedicated to spreading technology by making it affordable. They take old electronic equipment (computers, cell phones, etc.),and train disadvantaged youth to refurbish it; the equipment is then sold or distributed to at-risk communities. If this sounds like something that you’d like to get involved in, then set your browser to:

December 11 – Aloha!

Today’s factismal: Mauna Kea means “white mountain”.

There’s no doubt that Hawaii is a beautiful place. It is covered with rainforests, surrounded by colorful reefs, and filled with brightly colored animals, plants, and tourists. But perhaps the most beautiful part of Hawaii is Mauna Kea, the 33,100 ft tall mountain that is both the base for the state’s largest island (the eponymous Hawai’i) and the world’s tallest mountain. (Everest is a mere 15,260 ft when measured from its base to its summit; if Everest were placed beside Mauna Kea, it wouldn’t even reach the sea surface!)

Mauna Kea covered with snow (Image courtesy of USGS)

Mauna Kea covered with snow
(Image courtesy of USGS)

And that marvelous mountain is a wonder in many ways. Formed from a shield volcano, it started life a million years ago as a mere seamount. Fed a steady diet of basalt lava by a mantle plume, it grew quickly into the massive presence that we know and love today. Though its last major eruption was more than 200,000 years ago, it could still erupt and add a few more feet to its impressive total. But even more exciting than the possibility of a future eruption is the reality of its peak. The top of Mauna Kea rises an impressive 13,803 ft above sea level, which is tall enough to put the peak into a freeze cold enough to create a permafrost zone at the very summit! And if that’s not enough, for about nine months out of every year, Manua Kea is topped by a white blanket of snow that can be several feet thick. And it was that white coating of snow that gave the peak its name; in Hawai’ian, “Mauna Kea” means “white mountain”.

Of course, you don’t have to live in Hawaii to get snow (as most of the US can attest this week). And if you do happen to get some snow this winter, then there’s a group of scientists that would love to hear from you. Called Snowtweets, they are trying to track the amount of snow that falls so that they can improve forecasts. All you have to do to participate is head outside after a snowfall, use a ruler to measure the amount of snow that fell, and send out a tweet with the amount of snow that fell:
#snowtweets <snow depth in cm., in. or ft.> at <postal code, ZIP code or latitude, longitude>

To learn more, head on over to:

December 10 – Stink, Stank, Stunk

Today’s factismal: Pâté made with stink bugs and chicken livers is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.

It is the holiday season once again, and we all know what that means – parties! And one of the most traditional of all holiday parties is the potluck supper, where everyone brings a dish to share with the others. If you’d like to stand out this year from the endless parade of green bean casseroles and turkey à la King casseroles, then may I suggest a nice chicken liver and stink bug pâté? According to those who have tried it, the roasted stink bugs add a certain bouquet to the mix and raise it from the ordinary into something truly unusual. (I wouldn’t know – I’m allergic to insects.)

Eating stink bugs isn’t as strange as it might sound. Not only are insects a good source of protein, by eating them we take back a little of the food that they have stolen from us. And that’s exactly what most stink bugs do – steal food. That’s because they are “true bugs”, with a mouth designed like a hypodermic syringe that can pierce through tough plant or animal skins and suck out the juicy insides.

Brown marmorated stink bugs, ready to be made into pate (Image courtesy USDA)

Brown marmorated stink bugs, ready to be made into pâté
(Image courtesy USDA)

Among the most noxious of the stink bugs is the brown marmorated stink bug. This critter isn’t so bad in its homeland of China and Japan, where a wasp likes to use it as food (see – I told you they were tasty!). But it is spreading rapidly here in North America after being accidentally introduced in 1998. It is now found across the entire eastern United States. Though it is naturally most active in the spring and summer, they can be found more easily in the winter when they migrate into homes to hibernate. They will crawl through open doors, windows, soffits, and just about any opening that they can squeeze their body through in the fall and then wait for spring, snug as a bug in a rug (mainly because they are). If the house warms up enough, then the stink bug may become active and head for the nearest light fixture, which is your chance to catch them.

If you aren’t interested in roasting the stink bug for diner (and I can’t really blame you), then you could always report it to the folks at the Stop Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs web site. They’ll use your information to help the USDA and other agricultural groups fight back against this new pest. To report a bug, scitter on over to: